All parents worry, it’s their job. However, for Mary it is different. It is unending. It is a waiting game. She holds her breath and prays each day as her children come in the door from school. She is afraid to ask them how they are because she is terrified of what they will say. She spoke to Nicola Corless about the relentless bullying her children endure.
MARY* is a college-educated woman in her 30s. Born in England, where her father worked but raised in Clare, she doesn’t question it, she is Irish. While a barmaid in the UK in the 1990s, she met Brian*, who was working in security. The couple began dating and like any young woman in love, she brought her fiancé home to meet her family.
“When my parents first met my husband, they loved him straight away but they did ask me if I had thought about what would happen when children were brought into the picture. Even though they loved him, they knew that society can sometimes be less accepting. They asked me if I had thought about that and I said I had and that everything was fine and that I loved him,” Mary recalls.
Brian has lived in Ireland for more than a decade and has embraced it as his home. Before moving, he lived in the UK and had travelled worldwide. Mary describes him as warm, caring and much loved but Brian is from Nigeria and in Ireland, it is by the colour of his skin he is constantly judged.
Brian’s job involves working with the public and he is the subject of daily verbal abuse.
“He is very resilient but when the children get it, it really upsets him,” says Mary.
“People never see the children as Irish. They see them as adopted or refugees or ask ‘what country are they from?’ That is before they hear their Irish accents and then they realise ‘oh maybe their dad is foreign’.
“My daughter is Irish and I feel unless she wants to discuss that her dad is African, as far as anyone else should be concerned, she is Irish,” she continues.
It was fine when the children were very young. They didn’t know what was being said. Even at preschool, they were carefree. It was when they transitioned into primary school that Mary began to notice a distinct change.
“At Montessori, things were different, the children were younger and maybe weren’t as aware. From Montessori though to primary school, I definitely noticed a change in my oldest daughter, Anna* and then later my second daughter, Ellie* as well. From my perspective, it completely and utterly knocked Anna’s confidence. She became withdrawn and very conscious of the colour of her skin. She would say ‘why do I have to be brown?’ or ‘why can’t I have straight hair like you?’ or ‘why do I have to have a colour?’,” Mary remembers.
At the time, the family were living in an estate and children from a nearby house began picking on Anna and Ellie.
“The bullying and everything was absolutely appalling. The girls couldn’t even go out to play. The neighbour’s children were awful, constantly pushing and shoving them. It is not just verbal abuse, it is physical too,” she explains.
It was the escalation from verbal to physical abuse that drove Mary to speak to The Clare Champion.
“Basically, from day one since they started in the school there have constantly been older kids bullying them, people in their class bullying them. They have made friends sporadically, here and there but not in the same way you or I could. It has been harder for them to be accepted, even though there are lots of different races in the school. I feel the acceptance isn’t there and it is always thrown back at them. Always,” Mary remarks.
According to Mary’s children, they are not the only ones experiencing bullying at school. Other non-white children are picked on too.
“They are pushed out and excluded. You would think that with all the different nationalities in schools these days that people would be accepting but they are worse,” she says.
Mary’s girls are getting picked on by some children, not by them all, but she is very frustrated by the school’s response to her complaints about her children’s treatment.
“I was in to the principal and they say they operate an anti-bullying policy and an anti-racism policy but the reaction when we have gone to the school has been ‘oh, we’ll keep an eye on it’ and as the teacher says, they have limited resources so they can’t be everywhere. When my daughter is pushed or shoved or laughed at because of her hair, I go up to the school and they always say ‘oh we’ll keep an eye on it. We’ll talk to them.’ It is the same thing over and over again. Nothing seems to be done. The principal has never told me that he has followed up with the parents. He just says he has spoken with the children,” she explains.
“The majority of us at some stage or another were bullied for something, whether that was big ears or being overweight or whatever but for my children it is an ongoing thing about their colour, their colour, their colour, the whole way through school. They are constantly excluded. They are really funny, they are really talented children but it [their colour] is drummed home to them.”
When the children go to school in the morning, it is a tense wait for Mary until their return.
“I feel nervous. Everyday I think ‘please don’t come home upset. Please.’ I dread saying ‘How was your day? Was everything alright?’ I am petrified because I don’t know what is going to come out of their mouths. I am just praying to God that they come home and say ‘everything was grand, the school bus was grand’. I just breathe a sigh of relief because I swear to God I am so happy when they come home and nothing has happened,” Mary says. Unfortunately these days are few.
“Almost every day one of them comes back and says something. It would be very unusual for all of them to come home and say everything has been great. The odd day they would come back and say that. Do you know what I mean? The majority of days they would come back and say ‘someone pushed me’ or ‘someone said something’.
“We all know bullying goes on but it is the constant talk about their hair and the colour of their skin and, as I said, even my younger child says that now. I would love that to change. I would love them to be treated as children and not a colour. It is the content of your character and the kind of person you are, that you should be judged by,” she asserts.
Much as she wants to protect her children from these experiences, she can’t. Indeed, it is they who sometimes try to protect her.
“With my oldest, she will come in from school and I will say ‘what happened?’ or ‘what is wrong’ and she will say ‘nothing’. I know if she thinks something is upsetting me, she won’t tell me. So I try not to show my emotions or feelings but it is very hard not to get upset. I know there are times when they don’t tell me stuff and decide to keep it to themselves because they are worried how it will affect me and their dad,” Mary states.
She is disillusioned.
“These anti-bullying and anti-racism policies, I don’t know what they are doing. I think schools should be watching more what is going on. They should be drumming it into the kids on a class-by-class basis, what bullying is and explaining what the consequences are to anyone caught bullying. The consequence should be suspension. I don’t think that is done,” she comments.
Mary believes parents should be brought into schools and told when bullying is taking place.
“If my children were accused of bullying, I would definitely want to deal with that. I would speak with my children and want to know what happened because I know what they have gone through as a result of bullying and I certainly wouldn’t want them to be perpetrating that on anyone. My children are the type who would sit down with me and listen. I would communicate with them how wrong it is, definitely and the impact that bullying can have on a child but I think they, of all people, know what bullying can do. If my children were involved in anything like that I would discipline my children, which is what we are supposed to be doing. The only chance we have to get through to them is when they are children. We have a chance to instil values in them. If those values aren’t being instilled in them then, what sort of adults are they going to be?” she asks.
While adults in authority might not see bullying, Mary feels children do but they often don’t feel empowered to do anything about it.
“Be brave, be courageous, be the strong child your parents have brought you up to be and stand up against the bullies,” she urges.
“One day maybe you will be bullied by these people so they need to stand up now and say it is wrong. You have been brought up in loving homes with loving parents, you know this is wrong so stand up against it and don’t allow it to happen,” she continues.
“Children should get to know other children, regardless of their race, colour or creed and they might even get to like them. The bullies are the cowards. You don’t want to befriend a bully. If you see that kind of thing, it can be difficult to go to someone in authority but definitely I would advise them to go to someone because it is not right, it is wrong. Go to a principal or a parent or a teacher, go to someone in authority,” Mary pleads.
According to Mary, her children were always fairly resilient to people’s jibes but recently there was an escalation in the bullying outside of school, after which she made a complaint to gardaí and sought medical attention for one of the girls.
At Hallowe’en, Mary and her sister took her children out trick or treating. Her daughter Ellie loves the holiday.
“She is really into the dressing up and the make-up. That night they had planned to go trick or treating and then on to an event that had been organised locally. So the night was planned. We went to an enclosed housing estate in the area. I would never let them off on their own but my oldest daughter said, ‘look Mum, I’m 11. We are all in the same housing estate. Can me and Ellie just go off on our own for a while?’ This is what we did but I said to them, ‘look, take your mobile phone’. She and her sister went then and let me and my sister take the two younger ones. We went around and everything was going well and we actually ran into the girls and my daughter said to me ‘oh Mum we are nearly finished now and we’ll meet you back at the car’. They knew where the car was so we said ‘fine, we’ll meet back at the car’. So within the next 10 to 15 minutes we were back at the car waiting for them. Then the two girls came running back. They were balling. They were stressed. They were completely in bits,” Mary recalls.
It was around 6.30pm and it was dark. The girls recounted an incident to their mother, which left her devastated.
“My daughter told me the names of the girls because one of the girls wasn’t wearing a mask. They had been shouting at them, obscenities and [racial slurs]. Anna, the older girl turned to the younger one and said to just ignore them. My daughters ignored them. The girls ran across the green and pushed my eight-year-old down. Bearing in mind these three girls are older, they pushed her down, pushed her up against a car, knocked her to the ground and kicked her to the private parts,” Mary alleges.
“I got out of the car and said ‘where are they?’ Obviously, I wanted to find them straight away. We walked everywhere and I was so upset but I was trying not to cry or show that I was upset. They had taken her bag of sweets and thrown it over the wall. They had taken her wand and her hat and thrown it over the wall,” she continues.
Mary contacted gardaí and her husband.
“The night was destroyed. They were crying and we were just trying to cheer them up. One of them was feeling guilty because she felt she hadn’t protected her sister. The other, the trauma of the experience, she couldn’t stop crying and shaking. Bear in mind that this child is so resilient and nothing ever bothers her but this time she was shook,” Mary remembers.
“Brian was so upset by what happened to our daughters. He felt powerless. He couldn’t do anything. All he can do is be there to cuddle them and to reassure them and to tell them that through education they will have a better life and they will become successful and through this they will have a stronger character,” she adds.
Mary had decided to let the children trick or treat because she and her siblings had done so in the same village when they were young.
“My dad says maybe the girls will have learned a lesson too, you can’t look through rose tinted glasses. I have learned a lesson too. I will never let my children away from me. It has affected me as an Irish woman here. I am terrified to let my children out to live their lives but I know I have to as they get older but as regards Hallowe’en night, they will never be let around on their own. As I said to my daughter, ‘I know you want your independence but forget it at night in that village, no way’. It is not like when we grew up and we used to go trick or treating at night on my own. Times have changed,” Mary remarks.
“I said to my oldest daughter later, would she not have tried to run into the house they were outside but she said to me that she was just so shocked she was frozen to the spot. I was kind of wondering whether there was anyone in the house but if there was someone there they would have heard screaming and it was Hallowe’en night and they might have taken no notice. People tend to ignore these kinds of things now a lot in society. It is the times we are in. The recession has brought out a lot of unsavoury things in people’s characters. With the recession and the pressure of things, people don’t want other races here now. Ireland is such a charitable country, giving money to the third world but bring it onto our doorstep and believe me, you see the real side,” she continues.
Mary is disappointed by the attitudes of other Irish people to her children.
“It really does surprise me because when my parents asked me if I thought about what would happen if we had children, I wasn’t worried. I said Irish people, you know we are all so lovely and laid back because we are very travelled and have had to go places where we have had to be accepted and that was a big thing for us. The people going abroad got the ‘no blacks, no Irish’ signs and they got discrimination but they were accepted too. Irish people are now all over the world. You would imagine that they are well educated and should be open minded,” she states.
“I am very proud of how my children have turned out or how they are turning out despite all of this. When the bullying would happen they would come home withdrawn but it has built their character but that isn’t a good way to build someone’s character. They have such thick skin that I think it will make them good adults. You see all these actors and actresses and they say ‘oh yeah, we were bullied mercilessly at school’. I say to my daughters, look at these famous people and they were all bullied at school. Where are the bullies now? They are all wasters, doing God knows what?” she concludes.
* All names were changed to protect the identities of those referenced in the article.